Veteran centrist political writer Matt Bai delivered a Yahoo column today that managed cleverly to do two things simultaneously: to remind people that he was writing about Donald Trump way back in 1999 when The Donald briefly pursued the presidential nomination of the Reform Party, and to throw what amounts to a hissy fit over media coverage of Trump right now. The bridge connecting these two story lines is that Bai felt used by Trump when the mogul called to congratulate him for a piece the writer considered a scathing put-down. The MSM is falling into the same trap now, he suggests.
So what is to be done? Bai acknowledges that Trump’s political standing in polls, money spent, places visited, etc., means you cannot really stop covering him as actual news, as HuffPost recently tried to do by consigning Trump items to the entertainment section.
[I]f there were any real proportion here, Trump would merit about half the coverage he gets, and we wouldn’t constantly be baiting him to hurl some new, headline-making epithet.
We can say we do this because we have some somber responsibility to vet the leading candidate, but the truth is we are operating in a precarious and insecure moment where nothing matters more than the almighty click, and anything with Trump’s name on it gets a ton of them.
So I guess the lesson here is just to cover Trump less–though Bai kind of loses that thought before thundering to a dark conclusion wherein Trump may auger the approaching hoofbeats of a dystopian totalitarian state.
I understand Bai’s impulses here. I find myself rationing posts about Trump like a news censor–until I realize this is simply ridiculous. I mean, I ignore the Kardashians almost completely, but withholding my own contributions to their endless feedback loop scheme isn’t doing them a lot of damage (particularly now that they are riding Caitlyn Jenner’s fame to near-respectability).
So what’s the right way to deal with Trump? The key is to use him to explain some broader truths about the presidential campaign process–truths that help explain why he’s not as big a deal as the headlines often suggest.
Yes, he’s running first in practically every horse-race poll recently taken of the Republican field nationally and in most states (even Florida!). That’s not so great an accomplishment in a seventeen candidate field, and Trump’s favorable/unfavorable ratings suggest he won’t be able to keep that up when the field starts getting winnowed. It’s also likely that the real jet engine of the Trump campaign–not so much “clicks” as his ability to find issues on which other Republicans are trying to be nuanced to the great annoyance of elements of “the base”–will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. And most of all, as the cycle continues and Republican voters begin concentrating on electability, Trump will definitely lose support to candidates who aren’t running nearly twenty points behind Bernie Sanders.
So if we know all this about Trump, aren’t we justified in just ignoring him, the way we are all pretty much ignoring doomed-looking candidates from Martin O’Malley to George Pataki? You can make that argument, though Trump’s high name ID and money mean you really do have to censor the news to avoid reporting what he’s saying and how others are reacting. And then there’s that one durably relevant thing about Trump until such time as he rules it out: if he runs as an independent in the general election, he could very well inflict a mortal blow on the GOP assuming he attracts even a fraction of the conservative white non-college educated folk who seem to like him so much now.
Covering Trump while making the appropriate contextualizing notes strikes me as a more sensible way to deal with the man than pitching hissy fits that simply inflate Trump’s importance more than the straight-out credulous coverage Matt Bai deplores.